Church then and now – the big questions about terrorism and religion
A sermon preached by Richard Cleaves
when Highbury Congregational Church and St Luke’s worshipped together
Sunday, 24th January 2015
It’s great to see Mike getting back into the swing of things once again – very much in our prayers. In the light of our conversation about today’s services it’s interesting to bring what we are exploring at Highbury on Sunday’s together with what you are doing here at St Luke’s. Here you are exploring what it means to be church seeing the tremendous importance of the apostles’ teaching, of fellowship, of the breaking of bread and of prayer. At Highbury we are running a Question Course at our Explore evenings on Tuesdays and inviting people to share the questions that trouble or intrigue or simply interest them so that we can address them together in our Sunday services.
It was the Sunday after the atrocities in Paris that we had a real focus on getting people to think up questions. Eleven of the questions asked that morning were to do with religion and terrorism – the big questions that trouble us.
I find it difficult sharing responses to those questions because I too am troubled by those troubling questions.
Charity Fatigue, Prayer Fatigue, Religioin Fatigue
One of the things that gets to me is something akin to what is sometimes described as ‘charity fatigue’. I guess it’s something that gets to you as you get older. Charities get you to give because you really can make a difference – but somehow over the years there’s still such a lot to do And so you ask what’s the point, and charity fatigue is in danger of setting in.
That can happen with church, even with those things at the heart of what church is about – prayer – we pray for persecuted Christians, for Syria, for Palestine and Israel – for Nigeria and those facing Boko Haram, for Uganda and those facing the Lord’s Resistance army – and the world seems to get worse not better. We pray for people who are ill – and see wonderful results to our prayer, and then we pray for people who are ill and they get worse – and prayer fatigue is in danger of setting in.
What motivates us as Christian people?
It’s very tempting to be motivated by the prospect of seeing the world a better place – if we can campaign for the right changes and give to the right causes we can get rid of homelessness, we can end child abuse, we can stop modern slavery, we can see peace in the world.
If that’s what motivates us … what’s going on in the world can have a devastating effect on our faith, our commitment to giving, our praying, on our whole involvement in the church.
I believe that something else motivates us. I believe that’s what renews our commitment to the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, prayer – that’s what drives us to campaign for justice and peace, to give to alleviate distress and perhaps above all to pray.
To grasp what it is that motivates us as Christian people I believe we need to go back to our roots, back to our beginnings to the people who actually knew Jesus and through what Luke in Acts 2.42 describes as ‘the apostles’ teaching’ in such passages as Romans 12:1-2 and 9ff to the basic message of Jesus in Matthew 4:17 and in the prayer Jesus taught us to pray.
Back to our roots in the Apostles’ teaching and in Jesus
I want to go back to Paul’s letter to the Romans chapter 12, to the basic message of Jesus in Matthew 4:17 and to the opening words of the prayer Jesus taught us to pray.
The wonderful thing about the Bible is that you can read it and it can speak to you straight away. But it’s also wonderful to see the kind of world the Bible is set in and then discover that there are connections we can make with our world. Do that and you find the words take on a different meaning and speak into the world of today so much more powerfully.
Entering into the world of the New Testament
One way to do that is to visit the Holy Land or follow in the steps of Paul. But another way is open to us as well. For at exactly the time Paul is travelling the eastern end of the Roman Empire, there is a pretty brutal war going on at the North Western end of the Roman empire. The conquest of the indigenous peoples of these islands.
And the front line of those battles is around about here. Battles are fought on the pitch at Kingsholm now … in the late 40’s as Paul was on his first missionary journey it was the site of the fort they built to control the Severn crossing, to subjugate the Dobunni and to press to the West. The story of the battles is told on the wall opposite Argos and on the Sainsbury’s round the corner from the Cathedral.
The Emperor Claudius hounds the Jews out of Rome as Paul’s second journey is under way … and by the time he writes his letter to the followers of the Way, the followers of Jesus, the church in Rome Nero has come to power.
When Paul is under arrest in Caesarea he is interrogated by Agrippa II who commnents that Paul almost persuades him to become a Christian. By the time Paul is in prison in Rome the Romans have overstretched themselves as they pressed up the Watling Street, the A5 as far as Anglesy, and Boduica and the Icenii rebel against Rome. Paul is still under arrest in Rome when the Legions take on Boudica where near where the A46 crosses the A5 and smash the last resistance. It’s a year or so later that news reaches Rome and Jerusalem and Agrippa II takes the opportunity to warn the Jewish revolutionaries who by now in the middle 60’s are planning to overthrow the Romans in their own rebellion. In a speech recorded by a contemporary historian, Agrippa II appeals to the jewish revolutionaries to put down their arms – look what the Romans did to the Greeks, look what they did to the Germans, look what they did to the Gauls – not even Britain surrounded by the ocean could withstand the might of the Roman legions.
This is the world of the New Testament … and we can glimpse it on our doorstep. It’s a world where military powers dominate. It’s the world where Nero turns against that very Christian community. It’s a world that leads to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple and the sporadic persecution of those first followers of Jesus.
In that world what motivated Paul?
Against the backdrop of that world we can turn to Romans 12 and ask what motivates Paul, what drives him to be so passionate about the way of life he maps out? You can work through verses 9 following and ask what motivates Paul …
9 What motivates Paul to believe that Love must be sincere?
What motivates Paul to hate what is evil and to cling to what is good?
What motivates Paul to 12 be joyful in hope, patient in affliction and faithful in prayer?.
What motivates Paul to share with the Lord’s people who are in need and to practise hospitality?
I don’t think what motivated Paul was the thought that do all that and the world will be a better place. From the point at which Paul writes these words his own personal circumstances are going to go down-hill and will take him to some pretty awful places. His fellow Jews and his brothers and sisters in Christ and indeed any who stand over against the might of Rome are going to face some incredibly difficult times.
Something else motivates Paul.
It’s that something else that needs to be our motivation too.
One clue lies in the very first word of Romans 12. The word ‘therefore’.
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters,
Looking back to Romans 1-11
What motivates Paul is in the earlier parts of his letter that’s nothing less than the good news of Jesus Christ that has within it the very power of God for wholeness.
It opens with an indictment of the Roman world and an indictment of the Jewish world – he gets to the point in 3:24 when he recognises that all of us make a mess of things and get it wrong in the living of our lives.
But the wonderful good news for Paul is that the God of creation has stepped into the world of his creation and in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has shown himself to be a God of utter grace, of sheer love. This is the good news of Jesus Christ that is nothing less than the power of God for the transformation of our lives.
Just take that step of faith in Jesus Christ and discover the transformation he brings. Not that we can live the life Jesus maps out for us in our own strength – but there is a strength from beyond ourselves we can draw on in the unseen yet very real power of the Spirit of God.
It’s the presence of the grace of God, let loose by the power of the Spirit that enables us to face all the troubles that come our way sure in the knowledge that there is nothing in the present or the future, in life or in death, no powers or dominations, nothing in all creation that can separate us from this love of God in Christ Jesus.
It’s all this that shapes the way we live our lives.
So … what did motivate Paul in that world? And what motivates us in our world?
1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, [that little word sums up the whole of Romans 1-11] to offer your bodies [your whole selves, everything you are] as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship.
What motivates us is a complete new way of thinking – a transformation in our whole way of looking at the world. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.
This is exactly Jesus’ message: Repent – have a whole new way of thinking, a whole new way of looking at the world.
Jesus was sure – the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God has come near.
What is the thing that motivates us? Be transformed by the renewing of you mind – have this whole new way of looking at the world – and then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.
What motivates us is nothing less than the prayer Jesus taught us to pray.
Our Father, who art in heaven
Hallowed be thy name,
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Charity fatigue? Prayer fatigue? Religion fatigue?
An anti-dote to Charity Fatigue, Prayer Fatigue, Religion Fatigue.
This is what motivates us – this is what it’s like when God’s kingdom comes, when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven …
This is what motivates us as it motivated Paul to 14 bless those who persecute you.
This is what motivates us with Paul to rejoice with those who rejoice and to mourn with those who mourn.
This is what motivates us with Paul to live in harmony with one another.
It’s not that when we do that we will see a better world next week, next year or even in our lifetime. It’s because this is what it’s like when God’s kingdom comes, when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.
This is what motivates us along with Paul not to 17 repay anyone evil for evil.
This is what motivates us along with Paul to be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone and 18 if possible, as far as it depends on us, to live at peace with everyone.
This is what motivates us along with Paul to not to 21 be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil with good?
This is what motivates us to keep at it. This is what motivates us to renew our commitment to the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, prayer – this is what drives us to campaign for justice and peace, to give to alleviate distress and perhaps above all to pray.
This is what it looks like when the God’s kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven. This is what it looks like when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.